Pictish warrior women (again)

Pictish female warrior

Axelle Carolyn as ‘Aeron’ in the movie Centurion (2010)


The most popular post at this blog – by a very long way – is one of the first I ever wrote. It appeared in July 2008, just a few weeks after the launch of Senchus. In writing it I hoped to spark a discussion on the question of whether or not Pictish military forces included female soldiers. I voiced my own views on the topic and waited for a response from readers. What I got was a mixture of useful feedback and vitriol, the latter reminiscent of what we used to call ‘flames’ in the Ansaxnet and Arthurnet forums twenty years ago. I wasn’t surprised to receive fairly strong reactions from some readers. This is a topic that inevitably touches on wider issues, like gender stereotyping and inequality, which are bigger and more emotive than a single question about the Picts. What did surprise me were comments from people who had misinterpreted my words as a personal sermon against the right of women to fight in battle alongside men. This wasn’t what I was saying at all. My point was that the written record – sparse though it is – does not suggest that female Picts participated in warfare as combatants.

The comments from people who had plainly not bothered to read or understand the post didn’t get past my blog dashboard. I deleted them as if they were spam. This doesn’t mean I’m thin-skinned in the face of opinions that don’t agree with mine. I always welcome criticism of my views – if it adds meaningful data to the debate. I am less welcoming of comments from folk who assume I’m a misogynist or anti-feminist, simply because I’ve questioned the historical reality behind fictional female characters such as the one depicted above. But I might still respond to such comments in a rational manner – if I think they add something useful to the mix.

Regular visitors to this blog will know of my longstanding interest in the roles played by high-status women in the political history of early medieval Britain. Over the past five years I’ve put the spotlight on a number of queens and princesses who appear in the sources as mere names – or as anonymous characters – with little or no indication of who they were or what they achieved. I think I’ve mentioned somewhere that this is part of my wider interest in the untold stories of ‘mute groups’ – those sections of society who didn’t get a voice in the contemporary written record – such as women, children and the ‘unfree’ or semi-free peasantry.

Well, it’s five years since the original blogpost, and I don’t have anything new to add. My views on the lack of evidence for Pictish warrior women have not changed. In fact, my scepticism has been reinforced by two online articles published in July of this year. Although these refer primarily to the valkyries and shieldmaidens of North European tradition, many of the points made by their respective authors – Dr Martin Rundkvist and Professor Judith Jesch – are relevant to the question of female participation in Pictish military campaigns.

Take a look…

Martin Rundkvist – Shield Maidens! True Or False?

Judith Jesch – Valkyries Revisited

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Two additional links: the original blogpost on Pictish female warriors and all my posts on early medieval women

P.S. – I enjoyed the Centurion movie.

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18 comments on “Pictish warrior women (again)

  1. ritaroberts says:

    Women were certainly tougher in those days.

  2. Jo Woolf says:

    I am surprised by the lack of evidence for female Pictish warriors, because most people will know about the Celtic leaders Cartimandua and Boadicea or Boudicca, who I assume were roughly contemporary. Is there really nothing that suggests the existence of Pictish war ladies? (She asks, sadly regarding her eye liner!) :)

    • Tim says:

      Although the eye liner looks great, the actual evidence for female Pictish warriors is non-existent. All we have are the warrior women of Celtic legend and Roman propaganda, plus imaginative additions to the Law of Innocents (AD 697). Boudicca may have fought in battles but, if so, she stands out as an exception to the norm. To me, Cartimandua looks like a military commander rather than a combat-soldier, an early example of the female warleader exemplified by the Anglo-Saxon royal women Aethelburh (AD 722) and Aethelflaed (died 918).

  3. tsmorangles says:

    One way to look at it would be to research if in early Christian/Germanic kingdoms : very recently converted and still heavily culturally defined as non-Roman, there are shield maidens. The Gallo-Romans, the Romano-Britons, the Romano-Byzantines who had contact with Saxons/Franks/Visogoths as to know them as pagans just a few years before would have used the existence of shield-maidens as another proof of their barbarous heathenry. Once converted, naturally the social order as in the Roman order would be re-established.
    It so happens Gildas, Sidoine Appolinaire, Ausone, Gregory etc mention nothing. Better Alcuin who records or is it Eginhard the conversion of the Continental Saxons via Charlemagne do not mention this heresy (for a Roman) to have a female warrior. The legions were not co-ed.
    I wonder if by female warriors 2013 is not confusing the leader as in the political decider in favour of war like Elizabeth Tudor or Catherine II and many ladies have proven they can be as tough as our testosterone laden other halves; but as fighting on a battlefield? Maybe the answer is in osteoarchaeology. When ‘female-gendered- bones are described with scars from swords , I will be certainly motivated to believe in Xena-Princess Warrior. But not now.
    Another angle is if I remember Tacitus in Germania who describes women ‘encouraging warriors. Then you have the famous Law of the Innocent and its circumstances. I suspect that the fan-girls of a defeated war-band were seriously at risk. Were they shield-maidens using their shields as one uses a drum to encourage the troops?

    What do you think, Tim?

    • Tim says:

      I think you make some very good points. You’re probably right about the modern tendency to confuse female commanders with female combat-troops. The former seem to have been rare in early medieval societies; the latter seem to have been absent altogether. I also agree that archaeology would be the best evidence, although we’d need more than one or two graves of weapon-bearing women whose bones displayed battlefield injuries. A woman dying alongside her menfolk while defending the family farm against bandits might be buried with a spear and shield, but she wouldn’t be a soldier in the sense of an individual recruited for regular military service.

  4. David Hillman says:

    My Albanian son-in law tells me that in the Northern mountains of Albania when the traditions of feud and hospitality were still going strong that there was a complete distinction between male and female activities, cloths, hair styles, manners etc, Some one was either a man or a woman. Nevertheless if a young women was left as the responsible adult to take on a farm she would become an honourary man, accepted as a man in all activites (short hair, pipe, mans cloths,) and no-one would question her rights and responsibilities at the market, in male social gatherings, as the male leader in welcoming guests and protecting strangers, in carrying a gun and organising necessary violence.

    • Tim says:

      An interesting example, David. Food for thought, certainly. This kind of anthropological data is useful for the wider context. I’m intrigued by the ‘honorary man’ idea and will add it to my notes.

  5. Erica says:

    I was interested but surprised to read the two articles you linked to. Just a couple months ago I read an article casting doubt on the previous assumptions about gender in Scandinavian/Viking graves. The article was claiming that in a in a great number of instances, the gender of graves had been assumed from the grave goods thus reinforcing via rather circular logic the “male graves have swords/knives” and “female graves have jewelry” expectation. They claimed that having gone back to a number of those skeletons with osteological sexing, a number of the graves presumed to be male were in fact female. Sadly I can’t recall the article’s name–it was, I believe, focused on Norse settlers in the British Isles which is of only tangential interest to me so I’m not sure I saved it. But here is a more general one in the same vein I found while looking for the first: http://bonesdontlie.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/viking-women-a-reinterpretation-of-the-bones/.

    One of the things that stood out most in the latter article was a quote from a “Saxon text from 1200 [that] states that “there were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’ skills”.” Now of course this gets to be more of that hearsay about foreigners. On the other hand it rather shoots a hole in any argument that the only textual references to women with weapons were valkyries. This quote seems to be squarely talking about real live women, even if they are women from a past time and a different place.

    There seem to be two schools of thought going on, one claiming that osteological sexing has confirmed that the male-weapons/female-jewelery grave good correlation is not only the norm but almost universal. The other claiming that osteological sexing has cast serious doubt on this as anything more than a general trend. I’d personally like to see an in depth study published with breakdowns and examples.

    I’ll venture even further afield from the topic of Pictish women for a moment. I read an interesting book some years ago called The Armored Rose which has a chapter in the beginning about the historicity of female fighters. To quote just a bit of a lengthy argument:

    “we all ‘know’ that women did not fight, so when weapons are found in *his* ancient tomb it is clear that he was a warrior, if they are in *her* tomb they are likely to be seen as symbolic of secular power. Ibn Al-Qulanisi, writing first hand accounts of the the first and second Crusades, notes women among the armored dead, and concludes that the women were in disguise, fighting as men. The conclusion is sound, based on the beginning assumption ‘women don’t fight’, which would have been true for his culture.” (Beck 15) And goes on later to describe terms for knight used for women, “chevaliere” for the wife of a knight who shared his title and “chevaleresse” for women who “held fiefs and had taken the vows and accolades of knighthood” (Beck 18). The need for different terms, she argues, may indicate a significant difference in role. “The Arab historians…Ibn Al-Qalanis, and Izz ad-Din Ibn al-Athir writing at the time even remark that women’s bodies were found along with the men in the aftermath of a Crusader battle. This should not be surprising when looking at the records of the Templars and Hospitallers, as by their own writings, they admitted women to the Orders.” (18-9).

    Now, the Crusades are very very far afield from Pictish women. And even further from areas I know a whole lot about. What struck me about this particular part of her argument though, is that it was the *contemporary* sources that invented an assumption about the women having fought in disguise because they couldn’t fathom women openly fighting. Cultural assumptions can color things very deeply. If say, one Pictish warrior in a hundred was a woman. Or one in five hundred. And let’s say they dressed in the same armor the men did. Let’s say the Picts themselves didn’t think much of it, or were getting to be a bit embarrassed about it, in any case didn’t make a big deal of it when speaking with their neighbors. How many warriors were there at a given time anyway? If you have a handful in any generation, it is possible that it wouldn’t much remarked upon by their neighbors. Particularly if it was going out of fashion around the time of the historical period anyway.

    Were Pictish women in the historical period often warriors? Certainly not–that would have drawn attention and scandalized comment from neighboring societies. Were they in the misty time of legends of Scathach and Aife? We have no where near enough evidence to know. But doubtful, in my opinion. Could a small scattering of women been trained at arms whether intended for defense only or as full warriors at any given time without entering the historical record (beyond, possibly, in a warped form in the Law of Innocents)? Probably. Particularly given the dearth of Pictish documents per se. Were they actually so trained? Again, we don’t know.

    Ask me again in a month and I might argue differently. I go back and forth on this one.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this fantastic info, Erica. It certainly opens up the possibility that the presence of small numbers of warrior women in Pictish armies may have been concealed by contemporary writers. I do think the Crusader example is worth keeping in mind.

      I follow Katy Meyers on Twitter but I hadn’t seen the blogpost you cited, nor the article by Shane McLeod. Very interesting indeed.

      I notice you mentioned the Law of Innocents. For me, this is the one text that does hint at the historical existence of warrior women in early medieval Britain and Ireland. Even when the later layers are stripped away, we seem to be left with a seventh-century complaint against real instances of female military service (in some Irish kingdoms, at least). I don’t quite know what to make of it, but Gilbert Márkus in his 1997 edition of Cáin Adamnáin had this to say:
      ‘…it is likely that women were involved in military encounter and war-making to some extent (otherwise the Law would have had no function)’

      Perhaps the way forward will come from archaeology, and with new ways of interpreting the evidence from graves. Whether we’ll ever have specific data relating to the Picts is another matter.

    • Védís says:

      Hi Erica – if you remember that article you mentioned now I’d LOVE to read it! However I’d like to correct one thing. That quote about the females is not Saxon, it’s from Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish (pseudo) historian from the 12th century.

      • Erica says:

        Hard to say for sure now. I think what I read was an article summarizing and commenting upon this article: MCLEOD, S. (2011), Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 ad. Early Medieval Europe, 19: 332–353. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00323.x

        For instance USA Today had an article about it (“Invasion of the Viking women unearthed”) which has relevant quotes from McLeod’s article such as, “Warlike grave goods may have misled earlier researchers about the gender of Viking invaders, the study suggests. At a mass burial site called Repton Woods, “(d)espite the remains of three swords being recovered from the site, all three burials that could be sexed osteologically were thought to be female, including one with a sword and shield,” says the study.”

        Now I’d love to read McLeod’s whole article. I’ll have to pester my local library about access.

        Thanks, Védís, for the clarification about the Saxo Grammaticus.

  6. Mike Hancox says:

    Whilst it is much later than the early Mediaeval period, I read, once, in Saxo Grammaticus (I forget which volume) of a Danish Army being mustered. Recruits and their followers came from all over the place and one of them was a woman with a contingent of men; unusual, but there. This would have been in the early/mid 11th century. Sorry I can’t be of more help, but it might jog someone’s memory.

    • Tim says:

      An interesting reference, Mike. I’ve made a note to chase it up. Even if the woman in question wasn’t an actual warrior, she might have been a military commander (like Aethelflaed of Mercia) rather than just an aristocratic lady lending her personal retinue to the campaign.

  7. David Hillman says:

    This article http://judithweingarten.blogspot.co.uk/ about a female Etruscan warrior at Tarquinii I have just read is also relevant.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for posting the Etruscan link, David. Very interesting. This kind of information adds another comparison to the Pictish conundrum.

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